PITTSBURGH — Pat Narduzzi is pretty far removed from being the kind of coach that spends much time during their week contemplating ice cream flavors.
But much like a Pop Warner parent, he’s going to have to make some decisions this week about how flavors. Specifically, Narduzzi has shown a tendency over the years to go a little bit vanilla with his opening-week game plan.
In Narduzzi’s first season opener at Pitt, the Panthers scored 45 points, but allowed 37 and was never able to distance itself from Youngstown State despite several big plays by the offense.
The following year, the Panthers took a 14-point first-half lead and used a super-conservative offense to sneak past Villanova, 28-7. The following week, Pitt had plenty of surprises in store, as the Panthers unveiled their jet sweep-focused offense to knock off Penn State at Heinz Field. No Pitt receivers carried the ball against Villanova. The total surprise of the new Pitt offense led by Matt Canada was a huge factor in Pitt’s rivalry game victory.
But the downside of playing things close to the vest has been evident for Pitt, as well. Youngstown State took the Panthers to overtime in 2017, nearly unraveling that season before it got started.
Since then, Pitt has generally played things straight, beating FCS opponents Albany and Austin Peay badly in 2018 and 2020, while losing at home to Virginia in a rare Power Five opener in 2019.
So which will it be this year? Of course, Narduzzi isn’t saying exactly, but he hinted that he will once again allow Mark Whipple to use the majority of his playbook in the opener.
“Not vanilla,” Narduzzi said. “How about butter pecan or something like that? I want to have some nuts in it. It’s not going to be vanilla. We are going to play and we’re going to see what we’ve got.”
Whipple will be facing the team he last coached for on Saturday. The Pitt offensive coordinator had two stints as head coach at UMass, leading the Minutemen from 1998-2003 and against from 2014-18. He won an NCAA Division I-AA National Championship at UMass in 1998, but was relieved of his duties after a pair of 4-8 seasons.
Narduzzi said he doesn’t expect Whipple’s history with UMass to play a role on Saturday.
“I think that’s (way in the past),” he said. “If there is, he’s not going to be the type of guy, oh, can’t wait to play them. It’s probably like me playing Youngstown State, one of those same things that you can never let your emotions get ahold of you. Obviously we all know, in every profession, it’s natural, it’s human that you want to go do that. But, you know, the emotions won’t get into the game.”
LONG TIME COMING
Narduzzi starts his seventh season as head coach of the Panthers, which will make him the longest tenured bench boss for the Blue and Gold in quite some time.
The last man to serve as head coach for seven straight seasons at Pitt was Walt Harris, who led the Panthers for eight seasons from 1997-2004. Since then, Dave Wannstedt (six seasons), Michael Haywood (zero), Todd Graham (one) and Paul Chryst (three) have had varying lengths of shorter tenures.
“I like Pittsburgh,” Narduzzi said. “But it doesn’t matter. It’s one year at a time. I don’t look at the years. It’s nice. It’s great to be here. But you know, in this profession, you never know. That’s the first thing. It’s just one game at a time, one year at a time and we’ll worry about next year (then). Doesn’t matter what you did in the first six. It’s about this year and just coaching football.”
NO ROOM FOR NEW BLOOD?
With the Panthers returning so many players from the 2020 team, there wasn’t a lot of room on Pitt’s depth chart for new blood this fall. Just two true freshmen — center Terrence Moore and tight end Gavin Bartholomew — are even on the two-deep roster, and only Bartholomew seems a good bet to see the field while the result is in question.
Pitt had the No. 29 recruiting class in the country last year, so there are some good players currently buried on Pitt’s depth chart, including four-star defensive linemen Naquan Brown, Elliot Donald and Nahki Johnson.
“Patience is the key,” Narduzzi said. “I’ll just point out some guys that — again I’m going to miss somebody. Young guys, don’t get mad when I miss somebody — but Noah Biglow, Khalil Anderson, [Tamarion] Crumpley, those guys in the back. Javon McIntyre is a guy that can show up whether special teams or in another couple weeks when they start to really gel. Nahki Johnson, watch out. He might not be in the two-deep right now but he’s a guy that I see in the future.
“Jaden Bradley, wide out, that guy is a football player. Coach Whipple sent him down to the scout field yesterday because he kept jumping in taking everybody’s (reps). The guy loves football. He’s jumping in taking Jared Wayne’s reps. That guy is just dying to get in there. He loves football and he’s going to be a good football player in this conference. He’ll play this year, I have no doubts, as long as he stays patient. Rodney (Hammond) is another one of those guys that’s a good football player.”
Narduzzi said before training camp that his team was 93% vaccinated, and he said that while the team remains tantalizingly close to the 100% mark, he and his staff have shifted their focus to winning football games at this point.
“We are right there, right where you talked about as far as the percentage goes and maybe a little bit better,” he said. “At the end the guys just have to figure it out. The good thing is we are in a good spot as far as that goes and you know sometimes, you just kind of give up. So I’ve given up on the last, whatever, five percent, whatever it is, and I’m focused on game week.”